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A Conversation between Jonathan Marx and Jim Haynes

MARX: When did you create the works in "Magnetic North"? Did you create them all in a concentrated period of time, or over a broader period of time, with some intent of showing the chemical changes in various phases?

HAYNES: As the "Magnetic North" series is 3 very large images composed of 90 smaller ones, the logistics alone required a considerable amount of time. While I shot the original photographs in early 2002 and there were a number of sketches and conceptual dead-ends which took place over the next six or seven months, the entire installation came to resolation in early 2003. In all honesty, the majority of the time spent on "Magnetic North" was in building the frames for all of the photographs. It's a little ironic that this detail, which nobody should pay attention to when looking at the work, is the most labor and time intensive. That said, had the pieces been simply tacked up on the wall as rough, unfinished photographs, I don't think "Magentic North" would have the visual impact that it does, with this highly controlled grid in which a chemical reaction is slowly taking place.

The really interesting thing about that chemical process is that in order for the photographs to change through this process, the altered photographs need to be exposed to sunlight. I'm guessing it has to be ultraviolet light, although I really only have a rudimentary, aesthetic grasp of the chemicals that I'm using. My studio in San Francisco is a bunker with no natural light, so essentially I can keep the pieces in stasis indefinitely until I'm ready to exhibit them. When "Magnetic North" was first on display at Works / San Jose, the earliest pieces had pretty much been the same as when I was finished applying the chemicals to the photographs.

MARX: Along these same lines, what state are the works in now? How (and how much) have they changed since you first created them? And how (much) have they changed since you last showed them in a public setting (and when was that)? How much were you able to anticipate how they'd change, and is it possible to know how much more they might change still?

HAYNES: Currently, the photographs are in my studio and thus in stasis. When they originally were created and exhibited at Works / San Jose, there was a considerable amount of copper greens which illuminated the surfaces. During the month long show in San Jose in which there was a small amount of sunlight exposure to the photographs, these greens had shifted towards bruised reds and purples, with the rust colorations maintaining their prominent stains. I'm able to anticipate a general spectrum of change beginning with the most intense coloration (typically bright chemical greens, sort of like an ascerbic lime green, but also bright orange whic is more the color of a spectacular autumnal flash rather than the artificial UT Vol orange) then mute towards the aforementioned purples and reds, and come to some sort of conclusion with a distressed gray. I've found it possible to embed stains of copper and rust directly into the paper, these are as permanant as anything that I do. Within this general spectrum, I've encountered any number of possibilities that I had no control over. Sometimes, the intrinsic image fades entirely within the chemical residues; other times, it emerges as a ghostly after image. What I love about the process is what a lot of collectors fear, the fact that I have given permission for my work to change in such a way that it's beyond my control. Even if the terminal phase of the process results in an image that totally sucks, I'm really excited by the fact that the piece decided to have those results and not me. Obviously, I learn from the process and try to hone my skills, so the photographs will always hold a visual impact, no matter where they are in the process.

MARX: If the metaphorical implications of "Magnetic North" change over time by virtue of the changing composition of work itself, has your own response to the work changed, and are you willing to say how?

HAYNES: That's a really good question. I guess I'd respond with a reference to David Lynch's "Lost Highway" - a mobius strip of a movie that seemed to play the notions of perception through a sort of teleportation of identity into various bodies. In a conversation between a cop and Bill Pullman's character about a mysterious videotape that Pullman received, the cop asked "Do you have a video camera?" to which Pullman responsed "No, I like to remember things how I remember them, not necessarily the way things happened." Or something to that effect. In the past, I had kept journals with various thoughts, dreams, drawings, and other ideas. Aside from the few words about dreams which could evoke the same uncanny dread, euphoria, or displacement within the dream, these journals had proved to be of little use to me, mostly because the fragmented thoughts have lost their context and have little bearing on my current relationship with reality, God, my friends, and the world around me. That said, I'm certainly not advocating a dismissal of history. Far too many artists today have little regard or understanding of the history of those who came before them. I think that's really sad, and it makes room for all of ironic posturing that's rampant, at least in San Francisco and New York. Instead, I approach history -- both personal and global -- from a uniform belief system that would enable me to have a consistancy of perceptions and judgements even if my memory of events, people, and places may not be perfect. This is something of an inversion of the post-modern advocacy for relativism to be an epistomological way of looking at life, reality, etc.

Back to question of tracing those my personal histories in my work, I guess an analogous question would be how much do you notice your own face changing when you wake up in the morning and first look at the mirror? It's the same face as the day before and the day before that, in which not much has changed. However, if you were to then compare your current face with a photograph of yourself 10 years ago, you'd notice considerable differences. So my responses to my own work doesn't appear to change all that much, unless I were to look back upon those journals or previous statements that I've made. Considering that I don't use the journal all that much any more and also that I hate writing about my own work since I feel that I offer a poor translation of my visual ideas within the written word, there is not very much that I keep around or reference or use as watermark for what my previous ideas had been. Obviously my responses are gradually changing; but without documenting those changes in conceptual ideas, it's difficult to comment with any degree of accuracy.

MARX: I like what you say about the broadness of the metaphorical implications, because it sure seems like there's a helluva lot going on here--and as you note, the implications are mutable. And yet, maybe because I'm trying to write about it, it's hard not to resort to pulling out certain ideas and focusing on them, trying to pin them down in some kind of way. One thing that strikes me is the interaction of humanity and nature, as represented by the use of rust and chemical processes, and especially by the way these elements work in the composition of "Magnetic North 3," in which they're overlaid onto the image of a bridge. This points to another striking theme throughout your work: the essence of change and decay, as something at once inevitable, indiscriminate and also possessed of rough, unique beauty. Taken in that broader scope, all of these ideas feel as though they're pointing to something elemental or essential both to human experience and to, well, planetary experience. The very title of the piece points to a force that remains constant (in its magnetic pull) even as it too changes. So I guess my question is...am I on the right track here, or can you offer any response to what I'm saying that might better help shape how I'm thinking (and writing) about your work?

HAYNES: Those are perfectly good allusions that I also think exist in my work. One thing you may notice in "Magnetic North" and in all of my photographic work, is that there are no representations of people. There's the very practical reason that I don't exhibit photographs of people, because people tend to act differently when a camera is present. I'm certainly guilty of this. You can ask my mother about all of the Christmas card photographs I've ruined. But mostly the reason for this exclusion is that I find photographs of people to be about control -- possibly as an objectification of an individual into a fetish (i.e. Robert Maplethorpe, Richard Kern, etc.) an externalization of psychology (i.e. Dianne Arbus, Larry Clark, etc.) While I run the risk of comparmentalizing these artists who genuinely like, they just don't inspire me to make similar work. I prefer there to be a tension between the pretenses of control and essenses of change. This may be one explanation for the tight grids which house all of these photographs and contextualize them into a larger image.

As to your idea of the interaction between humanity and nature, I'd agree with your observation with the clarification that I'm addressing the residues of humanity in the form of architecture, communication, transportation, and geological alternations necessary for those things to take place. There are some political overtones that can be extracted from this, but they are purposely ambiguous and obtuse. I take great pains to avoid saying anything clumsy and didactic like "Magnetic North" is about drilling in Alaska. If anyone does read that statement into the work, I would only say that it was not my intent.

I like the reference to the title as having a magnetic pull towards a conceptual center. Honestly, I hadn't considered that and find it really exciting that there's more for me to discover in the work! As an extension of your idea, I might postulate that this magnetic pull references the second law of thermodynamics -- in which all chemical systems exhibit a tendency toward entropy -- but perhaps a more poetic application.

MARX: The Jewelled Antler collective engage the natural world in their work, albeit in a very different way, one in which nature (more often as embodied by living things) provides a sound component and a whole aesthetic. For all the differences there might be, I'm tempted to draw some parallels between your work and theirs, or to see a dialectic at work--in particular, this idea of getting at something elemental, something that has to do with man and Earth and yet can't be discussed in quite those terms because they end up sounding so limiting. How much of this is me imposing a connection between your work and theirs, or is this just a result of you all belonging to a creative community in which ideas naturally circulate, or is this something you've all actively engaged, and together you're consciously reaching for something?
Oh, and along these lines, what is it about your sound work with and without Loren Chasse that sets it apart from the Jewelled Antler folks? Much as I'm trying to figure out the connection here, I'm also curious about why you're *not* part of what they do?

HAYNES: Yes, there are parallels between Jewelled Antler and what I do. Perhaps we both have this shamanistic activation of elemental sources in our works. However, the Jewelled Antler collective is very much about the communion of the various participants. It is really important that each of these projects is populated with the eccentricities and personalities of each individual member. Thus, the Blithe Sons is going to sound pastoral because of Glenn Donaldson's awesome ability to narcotize UK folk signatures, where the Child Readers is going to sound fey and retarded because of Jason Honea's theatrical voice, despite the fact that Loren Chasse is the other half of both projects. Within the Jewelled Antler sessions, there's an obliviousness to the outside world, as they completely turn themselves over to the magic of sound and the mythologies of the Jewelled Antler microcosms.

I'm not going to say that Coelacanth (the project between me and Loren) hasn't experienced those transcendent moments. We've had some performances that have totally knocked my socks off, making me disbelieve that I was even a part of the sound that we were offering the audience. However, I think the difference is that I, and to a lesser extent Coelacanth, concentrate on more specific progressions of thought in balancing control and decay, where the Jewelled Antler collective gets their hippie freak on.

As far as any conscious decision not to be in the Jewelled Antler collective, there really isn't one. Most of the Jewelled Antler projects begin as extentions of a couple of people on camping trips or taking hikes throughout the Bay Area. Literally this is what the Blithe Sons do; it's just Loren and Glenn trekking around the Marin Headlands with a guitar, harmonium, and whatever rocks they can find. They tend to do these trips on the weekend when I typically work; so it's not always practical for me to go. I'm really good friends with everybody in the group, but I've never gone camping with them. Oh yeah, I don't smoke pot anymore.

MARX: Leaving aside all these questions about the Jewelled Antler collective, are there other larger aesthetic contexts/creative communities into which you feel your work comfortably fits? In particular, I'm curious if there are other visual artists who you feel a kinship with, and how.

HAYNES: I don't know if this perception is still accurate about Nashville anymore; but what I really enjoyed about growing up in the south as a disaffected, marginalized youth was that all of the freaks hung out together. Despite the fact that I didn't care for the Grateful Dead and still don't, a lot of my friends in high school were dead heads and stoner kids; and I hung out with them because there really wasn't anybody else. The biggest 'alternative' bands in Nashville during the late '80s were FUCT and Jet Black Factory, who would always draw the same 40 or 50 people to their shows, but there would be this cross section between punks, hippies, and normal kids.

San Francisco has exactly the opposite situation, where all of the different subcultures have their own distinct economies and communities. There's the screamo, costume rockers who all worship Total Shutdown, Erase Errata, and John Dwyer. Then there's the "Mission school of art" in which the cartoonish ironies of Barry McGee and Chris Johannson inspire every socially inept art student to draw badly in attempt to be another savant genius. The metallers never hang out with the house kids. The goths and the mods have their own bars. Rarely do music and art intermingle. It can be really isolating if you don't identify yourself with any particular subculture. So in terms of specific geographic communities outside my circle of friends, there really isn't any place in San Francisco where I comfortably fit in. Yet, on a global level with the benefits of the internet, I've found a small but fruitful amount of kinship with a handful of other artists. The Icelandic composer and general weirdo Sigtryggur Berg Sigmarsson has become a great supporter of my work; and I've been a fan of his work for years. The same can be said for the brilliant ethnomusicologist Giancarlo Toniutti, and to lesser extents for John Duncan, Steven Stapleton, Christina Kubisch, and Jonathan Coleclough.

As all of these artists are mostly involved in the sound world, I'll mention a couple of visual artists who I think may be comprarable. Silt, a video ensemble from the Bay Area, is stellar; and in a lot of ways, they manifest similar ideas to my work and to Jewelled Antler into the phenomenology of the moving image with this ecological mysteriousness. Historically speaking, I get a lot from Joseph Beuys in terms of metaphoric activation of objects and from Anselm Keifer, whose work wisely got me to stop painting, because he did everything that I wanted to do in paint much, much better.

MARX: The shapes and patterns created by the rust and the chemicals in each panel of "Magnetic North" have strikingly distinct qualities. And in this regard, I'm tempted to see them as individual exercises/experiments in abstraction: Even looking at them on your Web site, some of them convey an emotive quality--not one that can be reduced to a specific feeling or idea or image, but something more immediate and visceral. So I'm tempted somehow to draw a connection to abstract expressionism. But then, that seems kind of easy or obvious. Am I on a right track here, or is this a result of my limited art vocabulary, or possibly a function of having your work mediated by looking at it over the Internet?

HAYNES: I would hestitate to make any comparisons between my work and abstract expressionism, or at least the American histories of abstract expressionism. Throughout the '50s, there were a number of debates about the rise of American abstract expressionism with the dominant voice being that of Clement Greenberg, probably the first 'star' critic who had the power to assign who was important in art history. Regardless, using Jackson Pollock initially as the model for the pure aesthetic expressions through paint, Greenberg spoke of a marriage between form and content, that was self-referential to the history of painting, thus returning to the humanist traditions of "art being for the sake of art." Really boring color field painters like Morris Lewis and Helen Frankenthaller soon emerged, who took Greenberg's theories to heart and made work that purely responded to the surface of the canvas as being nothing more than a piece of cloth, as opposed to contemporaries like Mark Rothko, who clearly had an emotional resonance.
Aside from Rothko's ambiguous position as an abstract expressionist, there were the intrinsic failures of Greenberg's ideas as an ideal of humanist progress, which posited that a totality could be expressed through the uniqueness of the painted surface. Abstract expressionism thus was a tool of the Modernist genius to impose an aesthetic standard upon the rest of the population. There was nothing to comprehend beyond the sublime power of the image. This tabula rasa of meaning became problematic because of the rise of television, because this device made it very apparent that every public object offered a mediated experience of something else. Historically speaking, the Duchampian readymade ultimately trumped Greenberg's ideas.

Despite the fact that Duchamp's urinal and snowshovel pieces were made almost a century ago, those ideas are so compelling and so rich, that it's going to take a serious revolution within the art world to upset Duchamp's importance upon current art production. That certainly goes for my work. In using photographs that are loaded with cultural signifiers -- from the images themselves of non-placed, de-populated architectural objects to the grain of the photographs which resembles the grittiness of surveillance footage -- I try to offer a broad spectrum of possible readings. Each of these readings is valid, but the work is not simply about itself, nor is it a commentary on current state of painting and / or photography. I don't even like to think of myself as either a painter or a photograher or a musician... because my craftsmanship as painter / photographer / musician is pretty poor. My photo prints always look like crap! They're over exposed here, under exposed there. Too contrasty. Too grainy. But, the context in which I place the photographs is what's important. The context holds a selection of fragmented signfiers, and the audience plays the part of the crypto-analyst in order to decipher what the code might say.